Our resident therapist answers your queries about life and relationships.
Q: I have a son in his 30s and I have always done my best by him, as did his father when he was alive. My husband died five years ago. The thing is, I am the one doing all the calling and visiting. My son never makes effort to contact me. When I call to chat, he takes a while to warm up and, even though we do eventually have a nice conversation, it is after I cajole him by complimenting him. I could have done with more support over the last few years and not once did he call me to see how I was. I gave him a significant portion of his inheritance after his father died to help him buy a house and I can’t help but think that now he doesn’t need me, he couldn’t be bothered. I tested my theory out by not calling him for six weeks and lo and behold, he didn’t make any contact. I am tempted to stop altogether as I find it infuriating. Would that be awful?
Allison replies: Feeling ‘ghosted’ by your son pinches hard. Behind your words your wish to connect with him is about asking vulnerable questions such as ‘do you like/love me?’ ‘do you need me?’ ‘what role do I play in your life now?’
Sit with this for a moment, connect with any emotions that may come to the surface. You’ve been through a lot. You didn’t ask for this, change is always hard and change that you didn’t want is so much worse. Grief is a relentless and exhausting master. It can be normal to feel resentment when you continued to parent and then when you look for a relationship it isn’t reciprocated.
Were any of these emotions present before your husband passed away? Do you feel upset with your son? Do you feel abandoned by him when you were in your darkest hour? What is your relationship like with your son? How would you describe the relationship and now imagine how you think he would describe it? Sometimes it can be helpful to balance that answer under three headings of the good, the bad and the ugly.
His dad’s passing must have been so hard for you both. Grief doesn’t just take away the person you love, it changes everyone’s roles and place within the family, the consequences of which can be immensely unsettling for all. It also steals from the future. Remember, there is no right way to grieve. There is no prescribed timeline where the grief changes — the size of the grief never changes, you just grow around it.
The grief feels recent because it is, you may only be surfacing out of the fog of pain for the first time. I’m sorry to hear about your husband, what other support do you or have you had available to you? No form of support replaces the relationship you had with your husband. The chats, the comfort, the companionship. Acknowledging the loss of those needs is important, however placing them on your son won’t bode well for either of you.
If a parent guilts into visiting or calling, the connection is tainted by mutual resentment and frustration. Be careful not to push as it will inevitably be met with pulling away. You may temporarily get a dutiful son with check-ins borne out of obligation, but it won’t be good for either of you.
The hope is to open a new space for a different relationship between you and your son. As you are only too aware, it isn’t down to you and it isn’t within your control. There are some things you can do to provide a safe space for new conversations to be had and perhaps to visit any old ones that may need to be had.
What would it be like to let him know how you feel and to ask how it is for him? You could say to him — ‘I’ve noticed that I initiate a lot of our chats or wish to meet up, is there something you would like to tell me? Have I done anything that I need to be aware of?’
Do you have differing communication preferences? Ask him how he finds phone calls, there is a possibility that he doesn’t like them in general. Does he think a text is enough? These questions are explorative and not an inquisition. The tone will determine the outcome of the conversation. Being honest is hard, but as you are both adults you can let him know what is going on for you and see what’s going on for him.
Are there any topics of conversations that were hot topics over the years? Did he tell you he didn’t want to discuss certain things, could you possibly have misread situations that you thought were ok but maybe he wasn’t comfortable with?
Are there any issues that you can think of that may be unresolved? Relationships are about give and take and occur simultaneously on so many levels, but all relationships aren’t created equal, especially between a parent and adult child. There were physical, emotional, and financial needs that changed depending on age and him being a dependent.
Complex emotions can arise within roles when the duties of parenthood become entwined in unmet needs for you. Words like ‘he should call me’ will be felt by him and add to the distance. The intent is to meet at an open door, rather than opposing forces of push and pull.
Creating new boundaries is a major task for both of you as two adults. Expressing your hopes in terms of the relationship and asking him what his expectations and hopes are will bring some clarity.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column email firstname.lastname@example.org